10 April 2010

An Uppity Dutch Master (Part III)

(Uppity Dutch Master Part I, Part II)

Post-Marital Stress Disorder

While still a single woman in her early twenties, Judith Leyster became a master in the artists' guild of Haarlem, set up her own shop and took pupils (the only woman painter in Holland to do so). Although she had this remarkable career as a professional painter, it has always been believed that she stopped painting when, in 1636 at the age of 27, she married fellow artist, Jan Miense Molenaer.

After her marriage, she took on the responsibility of running her husband's studio, wheeling and dealing in real estate, and bringing up five children (only two of whom survived their parents).

If this picture is true, she had been an independent painter for a mere seven years.

So why are we surprised when this 'leading star' (her pun on the name of Ley-ster) was eclipsed by the fame of her male contemporaries, including that of her own husband? Especially so, or so the story goes, since she had the bad luck to have worked in the same time and place as the highly esteemed Frans Hals (1582-1666). As a satellite to this towering figure, her own work was soon forgotten -- attributed to Hals, or his 'circle' or left to languish as utterly 'Anonymous'.

In any case, we can all agree, she was no victim of the patriarchy. Painting in the Dutch Golden Age was a craft like any other: it's what you did for a living. Even successful male artists, as well known in their time as ours (such as Ferdinand Bol and Meindert Hobbema) abandoned their careers when they made advantageous marriages. If Leyster made the same choice, we should not assume it was because she was a woman. Not a gender choice, it seems, but a savvy business decision.

But hold on a moment.

If, between her retirement in 1636 and the tulip catalogue of 1643 [above left], she had given up her art, how could she possibly have changed her style? For the tulip catalogue pages were painted in watercolour -- as far as we know, a new medium for her -- and used a novel technique of drawing with a silverpoint-instrument on specially prepared parchment.

Well, we can explain that.

Possibly she continued to paint from time to time (the tulips suggest as much) and very likely, using the props and models of her husband's studio, they worked together on some paintings that went out into the world under his signature. Yet her distinct monogram -- her entwined initials JL and and attached shooting star -- does appear on the tulip page [rightc]. And if it can appear there, seven years after her marriage, how sure are we that her monogrammed but undated paintings are inevitably pre-1636.

The renowned historian Simon Schama, for one, points to the many pictures of children, "probably their own [children], that Molenaer and his wife, Judith Leyster, produced between them ...." Take, for example, Leyster's undated double portrait, Two Children with a Kitten and an Eel, [left] -- usually assigned to circa 1635. The little girl, making the 'crazy' gesture at her brother, could be Helena (baptised 1643) with her brother Jacobus (1639) which would date the painting somewhere around 1649.


Let's check the little we do know about her later career.

In 1648, a local historian, Theodore Schrevel, picked up the pun on her name and praised Leyster as a "true leading star of art" (‘de rechte leyster in de kunst’) and the best of the "many exceptional women in the field of painting who are still renowned in our time." That doesn't sound like the description of a housewife or art dealer; does it? But rather someone who is known as a painter and is still working under that name.

At some point, however -- certainly by the mid 1650's -- she started to sign her works with her married name. We always had a clue that this was the case, but no one paid much attention since it didn't make sense if she had ceased painting.

This was the clue. In autumn 1659, Leyster and her husband both became seriously ill and, on 6 November, they made their last wills. Three months later, she was dead. Molenaer recovered and lived on for another eight years. After his death (1668), the inventory of paintings still in his estate records seven works by "Mrs Molenaer", "Judith Molenaer", and "wife of the deceased" -- which does rather suggest that she was painting under her married name. One piece is further described as "a flower pot [painting] by Mrs Molenaer" (blompotje van Juffr. Molenaer).

And now we have this very painting! Signed, sealed, and delivered: Ju[...] molenaers 1654.

Enter a Lady Luck

The still life of tulips, lilies, an iris and carnations arranged in an imported Chinese vase [left] has been hanging in a Belgian home since the 1970's. A woman named Mrs Luck (her real name: I couldn't make it up!) found it in an art gallery in Oostend, Belgium, and bought it for about Euro 500 ($ 670, £ 435). This is not a case of ignorance rewarded: she knew exactly what she was buying.

She hung the painting in her best room, above the fireplace -- quite possibly where Leyster's original client would have hung it, too -- and kept her purchase secret for more than 30 years. The painting was, she said, her pearl.

What a pearl.

The dark background, contrasts of light and dark in the bouquet, the flowers partially overlapping with a few blossoms seen from the back, shows the artist's originality, certainly for a painter who was not strictly specialized in this genre. At a time when still lifes were generally painted with the greatest possible precision, Leyster's handling is, on the contrary, rather loose: painting 'loosely' with coarse, recognisable brush strokes was considered a particularly difficult challenge and many art lovers greatly admired such brushwork.

Since the painting is in excellent condition, with only the varnish turned a little yellow with age, it is probably worth more than a million euro's today. Mrs Luck can be forgiven for keeping her secret: "I was afraid that the painting would not be mine any more if I made the news public." She certainly could never have afforded the insurance premiums!

But when she heard that the Frans Hals Museum in Leyster's home town of Haarlem would celebrate the artist's 400th birthday (1609-2009) with a special exhibition, she decided to come forward. As she said, this felt like the right moment.

Frima Fox Hofrichter, whose monograph on Judith Leyster: A Woman Painter in Holland's Golden Age did so much to bring Leyster out of obscurity, is a happy scholar:
Many art historians have often assumed that Judith Leyster gave up painting upon her marriage. With the discovery of the flower still life and its date of 1654, we now have documentation that she continued her career as a painter. It is likely that Leyster moved to still-lives and botanical studies after her marriage, perhaps to split the market with her husband.
So that's what she was doing eleven years after she married. Who would have predicted a still life painted like this? She was still experimenting -- rather than, like other artists of the time (including her husband), fixing on a simple, identifiable and marketable 'personal manner'. Whether she was painting a portrait or a still life, half-length figures or a group at full length, using fine brushwork with dark colours or broad strokes and bold tones, or changing the vantage point, now looking from above, then from below, she transformed each standard ploy into something boldly alternative. Her work is thus filled with surprises and hard to classify. No wonder scholars cannot agree on which paintings should now be attributed to Leyster. Hofrichter considered 48 works (47 paintings and one etching) authentic. More recently, other scholars suggested only about 20 oil paintings (and the tulip watercolour) can rightfully be assigned to her hand.* With disputes such as this, Hofrichter is surely right to say that "we are still in the preliminary stages of forming an understanding of this fascinating and unjustly neglected painter."

The 'blompotje van Juffr. Molenaer' hangs in Haarlem on temporary loan to the Frans Hals Museum until 9 May 2010. After that, a Lady Luck will decide.

Dutch-speakers can now listen to Mrs Luck on the Netherlands talk show De wereld draait door (below). She hopes that we'll forgive her for hiding her Judith Leyster for so long, "but if you look at the quality of the work," she says, "I think you'll understand why I did it. It was a pearl in my house."

I, for one, forgive you, Madam. I would have done the same.

* In the exhibition catalogue of A Dutch Master and her World, J.A. Welu and P. Biesboer have either "pruned" or "ripped off" -- depending on your viewpoint -- many of Hofrichter's attributions. Unfortunately, they rarely give any reasons for their decisions which makes it impossible for an outsider to form an opinion. A particularly glaring example is their rejection of A Portrait of Vincent Laurensz. van der Vinne (Hofrichter catalogue # 46), a painting signed and dated 1652 (no less!), which has vanished without a word. Was there something wrong with the signature; or was the date too late from their standpoint? Hofrichter is not amused.

Quotation from Simon Schama, The Embarrassment of Riches: An Interpretation of Dutch Culture in the Golden Age (1987) 553-554. Sources for the three-part post include: reviews of J.A. Welu & P. Biesboer, A Dutch Master and her World, by Xander van Eyk in Simiolus 22, 1993 - 1994, 105-109; and by M. Hollander in The Art Bulletin, 76, 1994, 541-544 . L.B. Gellman, review of F.F. Hofrichter, Judith Leyster. A woman painter in Holland’s Golden Age in Woman's Art Journal 13, 992 , 34-36. W. Liedtke, 'Judith Leyster. Haarlem and Worcester', in The Burlington Magazine, 135, 1993, 856-857. A.Silvers, 'Has Her(oine's) Time Now Come?' The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 48, 1990, 374-5.


Upper and lower left: from the Frans Hals Museum catalogue accompanying the exhibition,
Judith Leyster: The first woman to become a master painter (photograph of 'Flower still life, 1654' by Margareta Svensson, Amsterdam).

Centre left:
A boy and a girl with a cat and an eel, The National Gallery, London.

1 comment:

  1. I was very glad to see this beautiful exhibition. Never thought that I love her work so much!


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